The Golden Onsen: Bathing in Japan

Nancy Penrose Click to

npenrose-199Nancy Penrose writes to explore the territories where cultures converge. Her work has appeared in publications that include Memoir (and), Passager, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Drash, the essay collection Travelers’ Tales, and the 2011 anthology Burning Bright: Passager Celebrates 21 Years. She have won awards from the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, Travelers’ Tales, and Memoir (and). More information about my writing is posted on my website at

Travel cleanses our character. Travel etches its reality on our soul.
— Steve Zikman

The water is dark, a hot swirl of red and brown. I step in and my feet disappear. As I feel for the edges of steps and sink down, heat attacks my naked calves, thighs, buttocks, and belly.  My body shudders. I pause to equalize with the water, run my hands through the bath until pain becomes pleasure. Flattening my back against the tiled wall, I slowly slide down to my chin.

I have bathed since I was a child, of course, but I have never bathed like this, in the waters of a Japanese hot spring rich with iron and salt. I am in the town of Arima set into the northern slope of Mt. Rokko above Kobe. Here, hot water is a ritual for the Japanese, an immersion into culture for the traveler.

“Few visitors to Japan fail to remark on the extraordinary Japanese passion for bathing,” writes Peter Gilli in his book on the Japanese bath. “The early Chinese historians commented in the third century A.D. on the peculiar habits of their primitive island neighbors to the east. The Christian missionaries and traders of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and foreign tourists, soldiers, students, and businessmen of the present day—all have quickly taken note of the Japanese penchant for frequent bathing, their custom of bathing communally, and their delight in soaking in waters so hot as to seem beyond human tolerance.” A sign above the pool at Arima reads 42 degrees Centigrade; 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

My husband, David, and I were in Japan on a two-week trip. One week in Tokyo where he taught a class in geophysics, and I used trains and subways to navigate and explore the city. One week traveling together to the temples of Kyoto, the A-bomb memorials of Hiroshima, the weaving village of Arimatsu. And to the hot springs at Arima.

Within the bedrock of our marriage, travel is one of the glittering minerals. Throughout our three decades as a couple, we have mined other countries for the sensations that shake us awake, rearrange our inner landscapes, teach us the question marks of our own culture. We decided to marry only after we knew we traveled well together.

Our trip to Arima began on a bullet train, a shinkansen, headed south from Tokyo to visit friends who live near Kobe. Fred and Kiyoko had recently moved into a townhouse built into the hillside above the town of Takarazuka. We were invited to stay with them.

“The house starts here,” said Fred the first time we entered their home, dragging our luggage up the first two flights of stairs. “This is where you take off your shoes.” Street shoes are not worn inside a Japanese home. We added ours to the slippers, flip-flops, and running shoes already kicked off there.

Fred is a professor of English at a Japanese university. He is American, tall with graying blond hair, my friend of many decades, since we were in college together. Japan has been home since the 1980s. Kiyoko is his wife. She is Japanese, from the northern island of Hokkaido. With chin-length black hair and wire-rim glasses, she is lithe and moves as if she has little springs in her legs. She is many inches shorter than we three Americans, who all hit at least six feet.

That first evening Kiyoko set out a dinner of shabu shabu. We sat on the floor at a kotatsu where a red plastic tablecloth—puffy and padded like a winter jacket—draped over our laps as we stretched our legs into the warmth of a heat lamp set into the underside of the low table. With chopsticks we clasped fat white oysters, marbled slices of red beef, thin slabs of pink pork and plunged them into the simmering broth of the shabu shabu pot. We swished our selections until judging them cooked and swooped them into our bowls. With chopsticks to mouth we savored the welcome, the warmth on this cold February night.

David and I slept in their tatami room, a traditional Japanese space within an otherwise Western-style home. To enter we slid open the shoji of wood frame and opaque paper.  We snuggled into the softness of futons spread upon the floor and fell into sleep scented by the sweet grass of the mats beneath.

Sento is the Japanese word for public bathhouse. It combines the characters for “sen,” money, and “toh,” hot water. It began to appear in writing in 1401, an indication that, by the 13th century, bathing in Japan had spread beyond its original uses for the ritual lustrations of temple priests, the healing of the sick. A sento that offers the hot water of a natural spring is an “ohn-sen,” onsen. When I paid my money at the bathhouse at Arima to enter naked with other women in a communal bath, I paid to enter into a tradition.

But what can an outsider understand of the passions of another culture so dense with history and centuries of practice? According to Scott Clark, most Japanese were still regular “social bathers” at the beginning of the twentieth century. Because of the lack of baths in private homes and the abundance of neighborhood sentos, “they bathed with their families and neighbors and while so doing exchanged news, gossip, and ideas, thus reinforcing a sense of community.” And though the practice thinned as baths were placed in houses, what has not waned is the allure of hot water rising from the tens of thousands of natural hot springs found in volcanic Japan.

The next day was a Sunday. Fred and Kiyoko were free of requirements at work and home. There was sunshine and a bit of warmth that spoke of the coming spring. We decided to take a hike in the nearby mountains and end at Arima for a bath. It was a route Fred had taken once before. We walked from their house to the train station and followed them through a chain of changes, express to locals, then up streets to a cable car station where we sat backwards as the funicular screeched and groaned up the steep mountainside of Mt. Rokko.

From the observation deck at the top, the density of Kobe spread out below us—clustered cubes of buildings, right angles of artificial islands and docks, the straight line of an airport runway where a jet knifed onto its landing path through the blue haze of dirty air. We spoke of the great earthquake in 1995, the death and destruction, now covered. The city was rebuilt before Fred and Kiyoko arrived.

David and I know that we too could suffer a great quake like Kobe’s. We live in Seattle, on the other side of the Ring of Fire, that zone encircling the Pacific Ocean where the great tectonic plates of the planet are colliding in slow crashes that can unleash monstrous and destructive powers.

The islands of Japan are a geological jumble of tectonic plates: to the southwest, the Amurian, once part of the great Eurasian continental plate; to the north, the small Okhotsk that some scientists say used to be part of the North American continent. Offshore, to the east, the oceanic Pacific plate is being bent, cracked, swallowed beneath the Philippine Plate that pushes in from the south.

This jumble riddles Japan with earthquakes, some of which are deadly, and with volcanoes, which can be both deadly in their eruptions and lovely in their liberality in the landscape. The molten rock of the volcanoes is the source of heat for many of Japan’s hot springs; abundant fractures provide abundant escape routes for underground water to travel to the surface. Hot water as reward for living in a landscape that can be deadly.


We had lunch late in the afternoon in the restaurant near the observation deck: curried beef with rice, bowls of udon noodles and shrimp, and cups of tea, bancha. Armored by food, we set out for Arima, an all-downhill hike from the top. Wooden signs and maps, mostly in Japanese, were posted along the trail. One of the first showed a big pig and warned of the wild boar that live in the surrounding forests.

“Boar? “ I asked, when I heard Fred’s translation. I tried to keep my voice casual, unconcerned. “Are they a problem?”

“I don’t think so,” said Fred. I was not reassured.

It was a springlike day, but the sun was still at the low angle of winter. As we walked we were soon swallowed by the shade of valleys. Dusk was settling like a veil.  None of us had a flashlight, not even a cell phone. Suddenly, nighttime felt too close to be at the beginning of a hike down a steep and rocky trail. The signs were not always clear. Fred and Kiyoko read aloud the characters carved into the wood. We ran our fingers over the lines for the trail, compared them to the map Fred had brought. It was hard to tell where we were: near the first dam, an angular concrete bulwark that reared above the riverbed, dry at this time of year? Or we were next to the second dam, downstream?  Should we go right or left when the path branched? We made our choices and continued on, hoping we were right.

Down, down, down. I stepped slowly over, around, between rocks in the trail to keep sprained ankles at bay. My knees whined. My feet throbbed. I held my complaining inside. Once I heard a rustle in the woods and startled, thinking of boar. Fred teased me about spending a night in the woods with the wild pigs. I tried to laugh back but when David stopped to take a photo I urged him on. To soothe my spirits, I held onto the thought of hot water.

By the time we reached the relief of Arima, the streetlights were coming on.

With a recorded history from 631 A.D., Arima is one of the oldest hot spring resorts in Japan. It was discovered, the myth goes, when two gods noticed injured crows splashing in a puddle of hot water. Within days the crows were cured and the gods were convinced: the waters held the power to heal. There is another story of a visitor to the springs, a sick and aged man who turned into a golden Buddha after a good soak. Then there is the feudal lord who unified Japan in 1590, said to have brought his infertile wife to the baths for a cure. I have found no record of whether or not it worked.

There are two types of hot water at Arima. The kinsen, the golden waters, are born from deep within the Earth, from molten rock, magma, that released fluids as it cooled. These are the deep brines of Arima, rich with iron, the source of their reddish brown color. Like cloudy tea. Like red smoke. Like rust. The kinsen are unlike any others in Japan and they are twice as salty as the sea.

The other waters at Arima are the ginsen, the silver waters, clear and carrying carbonic acid, waters that can be drunk as a stomach purifier, some say. The ginsen began as rain that fell from the skies of an ancient world, then percolated downward through cracks in the crust of the Earth, traveling deep enough to be made hot by heat and pressure. These are the meteoric waters, atmospheric in origin. At another hot spring in Japan, not far from Arima, the meteoric waters are thought to be 16 million years old. The Miocene epoch. Fossil water. Paleowater. This astounds me. The thought of bathing in ancient water. What was happening at the surface when this rainwater formed and fell?

Meteoric or magmatic, all the waters are travelers, made buoyant and energetic with heat, compelled to journey upward through cracks toward their cravings for the lower pressures of the surface. As they travel they are changed. The waters reach the top as a rock potage rich with minerals etched from below. At Arima, the waters emerge at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Dangerously hot. Deadly hot. Waters that must be cooled to be bearable to a bather.

In the darkness at the end of our hike, we saw little of Arima, but I have read it is a pretty town, famous for an abundance of onsen, temples, shrines, parks, and hotels. Shops were closing early on this Sunday evening and the streets were sparse of people. We followed Kiyoko like sheep following a shepherd, knowing that she, who had grown up in a hot springs town, whose father had worked at an onsen in Hokkaido, would lead us to a good place. We were tired, ready to stop walking, ready to release our bodies to the baths.

She chose an onsen where the baths were filled with kinsen. Walking into the lobby felt like entering a hotel. It was brightly lit and crowded with people, some of whom sat on wooden benches, faces flushed, wet black hair combed smooth, waiting for friends, family to emerge from the baths and join them. We followed Kiyoko into a room with walls of small cupboards, some with keys sticking out. Shoe lockers. My feet wriggled with the relief of being freed as I levered off my shoes, tucked them into an empty locker, and slid the wristband with key over my hand.

Kiyoko bought our tickets at a counter and handed them out. Our husbands went left. We went right.

Traveling in Japan, a country known for its precise and complex codes of behavior, its expectations of conformity, I had found the Japanese accommodating and kind, forgiving of a foreigner’s mistakes: standing in the wrong line waiting for the bullet train; forgetting to remove my shoes before I stepped into a temple. When we had met up with Fred in the public plaza of his university, I had asked if it was all right to give him hug. “Sure,” he said. “We’re foreigners. We can get away with it.”

But I knew there was one place that leniency was not likely to extend: the public baths. The rules of behavior are rigid. I was afraid I might make a mistake. I did not want to offend. I was glad to have come to Arima with Kiyoko as my guide.

In the women’s changing room, we peeled off our clothes and put them away in lockers.  Kiyoko handed me one large and one small towel that she had carried in her backpack. She opened the sliding doors to the baths. Instantly my glasses fogged. My bare thighs, dry from the hike in cold air, chafed by the rub of cloth against skin, sparkled with pricks of pain. I did not know why. Later I realized even the air of the golden onsen was salty.  The room we entered was cavernous but filled with the spatter of splashing water, the chime of female voices, ringing and ringing again off the tiled walls. I followed Kiyoko’s shape through the hot fog to a row of showerheads with faucets below. She pointed me to a low stool and a large plastic bowl on the floor. I copied everything she did: Soap well. Shampoo. Rinse. Rinse again. In Japan you must enter the bath with a clean body. This is the most important cultural point to remember.

Although I was at Arima only for the heat, for the soothing release of muscle melting into hot water, the balneotherapeutic properties of spring water are highly valued in Japan. Balneotherapy: the treatment of disease by bathing, from Latin, balneum, bath. The therapeutic qualities are derived not only from the heat and but also from the minerals once held in the rocks: albite, chlorite, calcite, epidote, muscovite, sphaelerite, pyrite, galena, and siderite. Minerals that the water has resolved into the chemical elements of potassium, lithium, calcium, magnesium, iron, bromine, sulfur, sodium and chloride.

In the kinsen of Arima, the sodium chloride, salt, is said to be good for rheumatism, surface wounds, infertility, arthritis, hypertension, indigestion. The iron is for rheumatism, menopause, anemia.

At Arima I alternate immersion with lifting myself out to cool.  Kiyoko and I talk little. We are focused on hot water. I know my bath is not Kiyoko’s bath. Communal bathing is a combination of words unfamiliar in my culture, yet bedrock of Kiyoko’s whose life as a child was shaped by the practice.

I emerge from the water for the last time, unable to absorb, tolerate more heat.  As I cool, I towel off my glasses and put them on. I feel like I am viewing a woodblock print of women bathing, a ukiyo-e from 17th -century Japan. A woman rests against the side of the pool, black hair pulled back from her round face. Her body is hidden in the dark waters and her head seems to float, disembodied, on the surface. A small white towel, a tenugui, used to sluice water while bathing, is folded precisely and placed on top of her head, held out of the way of other bathers.

With my withdrawal from the pool, I sense that the picture returns to balance, purity perhaps. I am the only Caucasian in the baths. I was prepared for my body to be an object of curiosity, yet not once have I looked up to find eyes surveying my tall frame with too much flesh, now glistening wet and splotched red. I am reminded this is a culture untainted by my heritage of Judeo-Christian embarrassment and taboos on public nakedness. Perhaps this is why I cannot help being an observer, cannot help notice the black pubic bush of a young woman and her firm mountains of breast. I see dark brown nipples cradled in the sunken breasts of an older woman with curly white hair. Ribs, clavicle, hip bones poke from beneath the pale skin of a very thin woman. I feel like a voyeur. My American eyes are not trained to look without being seen. I am probably being impolite.

I rise and go to the shower to rinse off the salt water of Arima. Not all bathers do. Some leave it on believing it is beneficial to the skin. I dry off with the towel Kiyoko has brought for me. Then I cringe for all I have to put on are the sweaty cold clothes I have worn in. But even my damp and dirty jeans and turtleneck do not dim the glow of the baths.

We rejoin the men, catch a bus down sinuous and dark roads to return to the city.  Near the station, we follow Fred and Kiyoko into a restaurant. We feast on edamame, grilled fish, octopus, prawn gyoza, washed down with beer, hunger honed by the long hike down, the renewal of the kinsen.

It is our last night in Japan and we are in Tokyo. We are staying at a Japanese inn, a ryokan, in the Asakusa neighborhood famous for its shrines and temples. At the entrance to all Shinto shrines there is a basin of water and a ladle: a place to wash hands and rinse mouth, a place to cleanse, purify before entry, to leave behind the pollutions of life, the outside world. Shintoiism is a religion of purification. One of the most important rituals is mizogi, purification by water. Some scholars believe this explains the Japanese penchant for bathing.

I decide I want to end our trip with a bath. David stays behind in the room. I find my way to a nearby onsen. I push coins into a machine, punch the button in English that reads “One Adult Bathing Coupon,” pinch the ticket that spits out, and hand it to the attendant at the desk outside the changing rooms. I tuck away my clothes, grab the small towel, the tenugui, I have brought from the inn, and go to the showers to wash.

There are three pools at three temperatures: 44, 38, and 18 degrees Celsius. I choose the hottest and go to the steps. As I enter, two Japanese women leave immediately. Have I done something to offend? Another woman gestures to me to come take her place in a rounded niche where jets pulse the water. I am reassured by this act of kindness.

I cannot bear the hottest pool for long, so I go to the cooler one where I use the tenugui to sluice curtains of water over my head, neck, shoulders. I rest against the side, the small towel neatly folded and placed on top of my head as I learned to do at Arima.

I am not the only obvious foreigner in the baths. I chat with a young Caucasian woman. She is French, in Tokyo for a year, giving language lessons, tending bar, sharing a flat with four others to save money. As we sit naked in hot water and talk, I glimpse the feeling of community that arises from bathing together.

I enter the 18-degree pool and the vibration of hot skin and cold water is at first painful. I force myself to stay in until it feels good. I drop my tenugui on the side of the pool and submerge. I come up and use the towel to wipe rivulets from my eyes, soak the drops from my hair. I repeat the cycle—hottest, hot, cold—until I am sated.

I return to the inn renewed, the bath feeling like a fine farewell to Japan. As I wait for the desk clerk to fill up a flask of hot water to take to our room for tea, I study a posted sheet of instructions on how to behave in the onsen I have just left. I had not bothered to read them before because I thought I knew the rules. This is what I learn: tenuguis are not to be brought into the baths of this onsen. They are considered unclean.

My mind buzzes backward, replaying the scenes in the bath. I don’t want to believe what I have just read, but it must be true. I cannot recall seeing another bather with a tenugui.  I am angry at myself for not having noticed. How could I have not have seen what was right before me? Did I miss the cultural clues a Japanese would have observed? I feel blind. I feel tainted by shame. Did I pollute the experience for others?

After a few days back home, the sting of my shame has lessened, receded like melting snow in the warmth of other memories from the trip. I can think of the journey without first thinking of the blemish of the polluting tenugui. But I have learned once again that travel is immersion at the surface. It is a myth to think that as visitors we understand another culture. We arrive, we immerse, we soak. We believe the illusion that we are becoming a part of this new place, this other. We do our best to behave, to belong. Then we leave, rearranged but still at the surface, captives of the culture that carved our personal landscape.


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